White House as helpless victim on healthcare

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By Glenn Greenwald

“It’s also worth noting how completely antithetical claims are advanced to defend and excuse Obama. We’ve long heard — from the most blindly loyal cheerleaders and from Emanuel himself — that progressives should place their trust in the Obama White House to get this done the right way, that he’s playing 11-dimensional chess when everyone else is playing checkers, that Obama is the Long Game Master who will always win. Then, when a bad bill is produced, the exact opposite claim is hauled out: it’s not his fault because he’s totally powerless, has nothing to do with this, and couldn’t possibly have altered the outcome. From his defenders, he’s instantaneously transformed from 11-dimensional chess Master to impotent, victimized bystander. The supreme goal is to shield him from all blame…”

Dateline: Wednesday, Dec 16, 2009

POLITICS-US-OBAMA-DEFICITOF ALL THE POSTS I wrote this year, the one that produced the most vociferous email backlash — easily — was this one from August, which examined substantial evidence showing that, contrary to Obama’s occasional public statements in support of a public option, the White House clearly intended from the start that the final health care reform bill would contain no such provision and was actively and privately participating in efforts to shape a final bill without it. From the start, assuaging the health insurance and pharmaceutical industries was a central preoccupation of the White House — hence the deal negotiated in strict secrecy with Pharma to ban bulk price negotiations and drug reimportation, a blatant violation of both Obama’s campaign positions on those issues and his promise to conduct all negotiations out in the open (on C-SPAN). Indeed, Democrats led the way yesterday in killing drug re-importation, which they endlessly claimed to support back when they couldn’t pass it. The administration wants not only to prevent industry money from funding an anti-health-care-reform campaign, but also wants to ensure that the Democratic Party — rather than the GOP — will continue to be the prime recipient of industry largesse.

As was painfully predictable all along, the final bill will not have any form of public option, nor will it include the wildly popular expansion of Medicare coverage. Obama supporters are eager to depict the White House as nothing more than a helpless victim in all of this — the President so deeply wanted a more progressive bill but was sadly thwarted in his noble efforts by those inhumane, corrupt Congressional “centrists.” Right. The evidence was overwhelming from the start that the White House was not only indifferent, but opposed, to the provisions most important to progressives. The administration is getting the bill which they, more or less, wanted from the start — the one that is a huge boon to the health insurance and pharmaceutical industry. And kudos to Russ Feingold for saying so:

Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), among the most vocal supporters of the public option, said it would be unfair to blame Lieberman for its apparent demise. Feingold said that responsibility ultimately rests with President Barack Obama and he could have insisted on a higher standard for the legislation.

Let’s repeat that: “This bill appears to be legislation that the president wanted in the first place.” Indeed it does. There are rational, practical reasons why that might be so. If you’re interested in preserving and expanding political power, then, all other things being equal, it’s better to have the pharmaceutical and health insurance industry on your side than opposed to you. Or perhaps they calculated from the start that this was the best bill they could get. The wisdom of that rationale can be debated, but depicting Obama as the impotent progressive victim here of recalcitrant, corrupt centrists is really too much to bear.

Yet numerous Obama defenders — such as Matt Yglesias, Ezra Klein and Steve Benen — have been insisting that there is just nothing the White House could have done and all of this shows that our political system is tragically “ungovernable.” After all, Congress is a separate branch of government, Obama doesn’t have a vote, and 60 votes are needed to do anything. How is it his fault if centrist Senators won’t support what he wants to do? Apparently, this is the type of conversation we’re to believe takes place in the Oval Office:

The President: I really want a public option and Medicare buy-in. What can we do to get it?

Rahm Emanuel: Unfortunately, nothing. We can just sit by and hope, but you’re not in Congress any more and you don’t have a vote. They’re a separate branch of government and we have to respect that.

The President: So we have no role to play in what the Democratic Congress does?

Emanuel: No. Members of Congress make up their own minds and there’s just nothing we can do to influence or pressure them.

The President: Gosh, that’s too bad. Let’s just keep our fingers crossed and see what happens then.

In an ideal world, Congress would be — and should be — an autonomous branch of government, exercising judgment independent of the White House’s influence, but that’s not the world we live in. Does anyone actually believe that Rahm Emanuel (who built his career on industry support for the Party and jamming “centrist” bills through Congress with the support of Blue Dogs) and Barack Obama (who attached himself to Joe Lieberman when arriving in the Senate, repeatedly proved himself receptive to “centrist” compromises, had a campaign funded by corporate interests, and is now the leader of a vast funding and political infrastructure) were the helpless victims of those same forces? Engineering these sorts of “centrist,” industry-serving compromises has been the modus operandi of both Obama and, especially, Emanuel.

Indeed, we’ve seen before what the White House can do — and does do — when they actually care about pressuring members of Congress to support something they genuinely want passed. When FDL and other liberal blogs led an effort to defeat Obama’s war funding bill back in June, the White House became desperate for votes, and here is what they apparently did (though they deny it):

The White House is playing hardball with Democrats who intend to vote against the supplemental war spending bill, threatening freshmen who oppose it that they won’t get help with reelection and will be cut off from the White House, Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.) said Friday. “We’re not going to help you. You’ll never hear from us again,” Woolsey said the White House is telling freshmen.

That’s what the White House can do when they actually care about pressuring someone to vote the way they want. Why didn’t they do any of that to the “centrists” who were supposedly obstructing what they wanted on health care? Why didn’t they tell Blanche Lincoln — in a desperate fight for her political life — that she would “never hear from them again,” and would lose DNC and other Democratic institutional support, if she filibustered the public option? Why haven’t they threatened to remove Joe Lieberman’s cherished Homeland Security Chairmanship if he’s been sabotaging the President’s agenda? Why hasn’t the President been rhetorically pressuring Senators to support the public option and Medicare buy-in, or taking any of the other steps outlined here by Adam Green? There’s no guarantee that it would have worked — Obama is not omnipotent and he can’t always control Congressional outcomes — but the lack of any such efforts is extremely telling about what the White House really wanted here.

Independent of the reasonable debate over whether this bill is a marginal improvement over the status quo, there are truly horrible elements to it. Two of the most popular provisions (both of which, not coincidentally, were highly adverse to industry interests) — the public option and Medicare expansion — are stripped out (a new Washington Post/ABC poll out today shows that the public favors expansion of Medicare to age 55 by a 30-point margin). What remains is a politically disastrous and highly coercive “mandate” gift to the health insurance industry, described perfectly by Digby:

Joe Lieberman is but one of the latest distractions.

Joe Lieberman is but one of the latest distractions. His very survival attests to the stunning level of cowardice and corruption reigning in the Democratic party.

Obama can say that you’re getting a lot, but also saying that it “covers everyone,” as if there’s a big new benefit is a big stretch. Nothing will have changed on that count except changing the law to force people to buy private insurance if they don’t get it from their employer. I guess you can call that progressive, but that doesn’t make it so. In fact, mandating that all people pay money to a private interest isn’t even conservative, free market or otherwise. It’s some kind of weird corporatism that’s very hard to square with the common good philosophy that Democrats supposedly espouse.

Nobody’s “getting covered” here. After all, people are already “free” to buy private insurance and one must assume they have reasons for not doing it already. Whether those reasons are good or bad won’t make a difference when they are suddenly forced to write big checks to Aetna or Blue Cross that they previously had decided they couldn’t or didn’t want to write. Indeed, it actually looks like the worst caricature of liberals: taking people’s money against their will, saying it’s for their own good — and doing it without even the cover that FDR wisely insisted upon with social security, by having it withdrawn from paychecks. People don’t miss the money as much when they never see it.

In essence, this reinforces all of the worst dynamics of Washington. The insurance industry gets the biggest bonanza imaginable in the form of tens of millions of coerced new customers without any competition or other price controls. Progressive opinion-makers, as always, signaled that they can and should be ignored (don’t worry about us — we’re announcing in advance that we’ll support whatever you feed us no matter how little it contains of what we want and will never exercise raw political power to get what we want; make sure those other people are happy but ignore us). Most of this was negotiated and effectuated in complete secrecy, in the sleazy sewers populated by lobbyists, industry insiders, and their wholly-owned pawns in the Congress. And highly unpopular, industry-serving legislation is passed off as “centrist,” the noblest Beltway value.

Looked at from the narrow lens of health care policy, there is a reasonable debate to be had among reform advocates over whether this bill is a net benefit or a net harm. But the idea that the White House did what it could to ensure the inclusion of progressive provisions — or that they were powerless to do anything about it — is absurd on its face. Whatever else is true, the overwhelming evidence points to exactly what Sen. Feingold said yesterday: “This bill appears to be legislation that the president wanted in the first place.”

UPDATE: It’s also worth noting how completely antithetical claims are advanced to defend and excuse Obama. We’ve long heard — from the most blindly loyal cheerleaders and from Emanuel himself — that progressives should place their trust in the Obama White House to get this done the right way, that he’s playing 11-dimensional chess when everyone else is playing checkers, that Obama is the Long Game Master who will always win. Then, when a bad bill is produced, the exact opposite claim is hauled out: it’s not his fault because he’s totally powerless, has nothing to do with this, and couldn’t possibly have altered the outcome. From his defenders, he’s instantaneously transformed from 11-dimensional chess Master to impotent, victimized bystander.

The supreme goal is to shield him from all blame. What gets said to accomplish that goal can — and does — radically change from day to day.

UPDATE III: Over at Politico, Jane Hamsher documents how Joe Lieberman’s conduct on the health care bill provides the perfect vehicle to advance the agenda of the White House and Harry Reid. Consistent with that, she independently notes media reports that White House officials are privately expressing extreme irritation with Howard Dean for opposing the Senate bill as insufficient, but have nothing bad to say about Lieberman, who supposedly single-handedly sabotaged what the White House was hoping for in this bill.

UPDATE IV: Immediately prior to the MSNBC segment I just did — video for which I will post when it’s available — an NBC reporter explained how Robert Gibbs used his Press Briefing today to harshly criticize Howard Dean for opposing the health care bill. Why did Gibbs never publicly criticize people like Blanche Lincoln, Ben Nelson, Joe Lieberman and the like if they were supposedly obstructing and impeding the White House’s agenda on health care reform (this is a point Yglesias acknowledges as a “fair” one)? Having a Democratic White House publicly criticize a Democratic Senator can be a much more effective pressure tactic than doing so against a former Governor who no longer holds office.

Meanwhile, as one would expect, health insurance stocks are soaring today in response to the industry-serving “health care reform” bill backed by the Democratic Senate and White House — the same people who began advocating for “health care reform” based on the need to restrain on an out-of-control and profit-inflated health insurance industry (h/t Markos).

Glenn Greenwald is an American lawyer, columnist, blogger, and author. Greenwald worked as aconstitutional and civil rights litigator prior to becoming a contributor (columnist and blogger) to Salon.com, where he focuses on political and legal topics. In March, 2009, he was selected, along with Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman, as the recipient of the first annual Izzy Award by the Park Center for Independent Media, an award named after famed independent journalist I.F. “Izzy” Stoneand devoted to rewarding excellence in independent journalism. The selection panel cited Greenwald’s “pathbreaking journalistic courage and persistence in confronting conventional wisdom, official deception and controversial issues.”

BONUS FEATURE:

December 17, 2009

THE KABUKI THEATER OF HEALTH REFORM (OR, KILL THE BILL)

By The Frankfurter School

Senator Joe Lieberman has refused to support Healthcare reform in the Senate if it includes any provision that actually reforms healthcare. Cue the outpouring of liberal grief” and then the resigned helplessness of better-this-watered-down-bill-than-nothing that will inevitably follow.

Listen guys, I hate Joe Lieberman as much as the next guy but if you’re upset about him, you’re a dupe, and you’re being manipulated by characters in a holiday pageant. He’s not the problem; he’s the designated villain. His seat is perfectly safe, he can’t be recalled, and you’ll all forget about this in three years when he’s up for re-election. It’s much more fun to be angry at him than the real villains, because the truth is really depressing. President Obama and the Democratic leadership are handing billions of dollars to the insurance and pharmaceutical industries and have scripted a drama to carefully shape public opinion to believe that this was the best they could do.

The Senate does not need 60 votes to pass health care legislation. The Republicans wielded power like a bludgeon when they controlled the Senate and weren’t concerned with what anyone thought of it. The Democrats could pass a single-payer national health plan if they wanted to and they could do it in the Senate with 50 votes plus the Vice-President if they really wanted, either by using a budget reconciliation process or by changing the rules. Medicare passed in 1965 with only 55 votes; if the Senate had observed this fictional 60-vote threshold we wouldn’t have that program today. The idea that somehow Joe Lieberman or Ben Nelson, or any one of these Senators is so important to this process is simply political theater. The bill that we are going to be left with is exactly the bill that the insurance industry wants, the bill that was agreed to in secret meetings at the White House earlier this year. And being upset at and blaming Joe Lieberman is a vital component to the manipulation of public opinion. If public opinion were to suddenly shift, and Democrats directed their anger at Obama” well that is the only thing that might stop the giveaway to the insurance industry. Rahm Emmanuel reads polls; it’s the only thing besides emails from lobbyists he reads in their entirety.

I do not support this health care bill. Call your Senators and tell them you oppose it too. It is a bad bill, and the Democrats want this so badly they are likely to try again with a slightly better version. There is nothing left in this bill but a mandate to force people to buy insurance and a law banning the exclusion of pre-existing conditions. Given the choice between sending a message that the liberal base of the Democratic party will not be taken for granted and abused and giving up on one lousy tiny piece of insurance reform (this is not a once-in-a-generation chance) it should not be difficult for anyone who cares about this issue to oppose the President.

One comment on “White House as helpless victim on healthcare
  1. My neurosurgeon, who accepts Medicaid and is on salary, says that this bill will make it more difficult for the poor to access good health care. He is not one to say so if it isnt true.

    These allegations that we are “killing people” by not supporting a bailout for the medical industrial complex are ironic coming out of a group that supports a president who just escalated a ridiculous war and allowed the only liberal oprtion to be written out of health care. Dean shouldve supported single payer from the start, but, Obama had best go easy on him–Dean looks great compared to Obama right now.

    STOP pretending that what you are doing is ‘historic” (unless historically stupid)..every country in the industrialized world already does it–but I guess thats just for civilized people.

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